Celtic and the Celts

On Monday I finally got to see the British Museum’s exhibit Celts: Art and Identity. It’s a stunning collection, and if you can still get down to see it (or can see the re-jigged version when it transfers to the National Museum of Scotland), you should definitely catch it. Laura Cumming gives a great review here, with pictures that show you what the exhibition is all about. Particular favourites for me were the twisted gold torcs (some surely too heavy to wear?), the Gundestrup cauldron, and the fifth-century warrior statues which reminded me very strongly of South Picene warrior statues of the same period. The exhibition plays with both internal and external views of the Celts – the Gundestrup cauldron, for example, was found in Denmark. Were its depictions of men in torcs and helmets, blowing carnyx war horns, made by a Celtic community? Or the neighbours who feared them?

But the linguist in me went away somewhat dissatisfied. In its end-of-year round up Guardian called the exhibition “a portal on the prehistoric imagination” – but “pre-historic” is precisely what the Celts are not. The exhibit implies several times that we have only external Greco-Roman written sources (along the lines of “they are fierce and warlike”, which is basically what Strabo says about everyone), and that our only internal view of the Celts is through their art. This just isn’t true. We have a wealth of written sources in Celtic languages, from ancient Gaulish in France and Celtiberian in Spain and Lepontic in Italy, to the multilingual Celtic speakers of Britain who pop up in Latin inscriptions, including curse tablets from Bath and gravestones from near Hadrian’s Wall. In the Middle Ages and the modern period, we have incredibly rich surviving literature in mediaeval Irish, Welsh, Breton and Cornish. The few texts in the exhibit were a copy of a Latin bible, and a short Latin/Ogham inscription consisting of just a name. Both very cool, but hardly representative of all the things that are written in Celtic languages.


And in case people think I’m being picky here, there’s a reason why language is particularly important in an exhibition about the Celts. In one sense, the “Celts” never really existed – no ancient or mediaeval group called themselves that. So how is an exhibit on “Celtic” culture put together at all? “Celtic” is a cultural (and racial) grouping which was created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the basis of these communities’ languages – not their art. When linguists began to see similarities between languages like Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, ancient Gaulish and others, they created the idea of a “Celtic” branch of Indo-European and therefore a “Celtic” race that had spread out over Europe, and a general “Celtic” culture too. This idea gained ground in the C18 and C19th, but can be traced all the way back to George Buchanan in the C16th. This kind of thinking, where one language is assumed to belong to one shared archaeological culture or even one genetically similar population (sometimes called pots=people or language=pots=people) is now recognised as problematic. It’s usually a highly misleading way of looking at the past, because this is not really how art, language or material culture work – these different cultural elements can spread and change totally independently of each other, and don’t need to be closely tied. So the exhibition’s emphasis on the diversity of the Celts absolutely makes sense – but doesn’t explain why anyone grouped them together in the first place.

The exhibition hints at these issues in its last section on the modern Celtic revival. It mentions George Buchanan, Edward Lluyd and the revival of the term Celtic, mostly in the context of its application to the languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. But it’s hard to see, from what is presented, how these Insular Celtic languages connect to the communities in continental Europe whose artefacts make up much of the earlier part of the exhibition. Without eighteenth and nineteenth century linguistics, the origin of our modern “Celticness” is lost.  I’m not surprised that the British Museum kind of hedged around this difficult issue. But I think we can be honest about the problematic roots of an idea like “Celticness” while still appreciating the variety and beauty of the art of ancient and Mediaeval Europe, and acknowledging the importance that this category has for people who currently identify as Celtic. Ultimately the exhibition is what its title says – it’s about art, and language is mostly dropped from the picture. For me, that makes the “identity” part of the exhibit tricky to get hold of.

2 thoughts on “Celtic and the Celts

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  1. “They didn’t have the courage of their convictions though – having spent the first couple of rooms going on at length how there were no Celts, they proceeded to refer to ‘Celtic art’ etc. throughout.”

    Yes – this was exactly my feeling about it! P felt similarly about the music too. If you’re going to have atmospheric Celtic-ish music, why not go for some recent Irish or Scottish music, rather than something which vaguely suggests Celticness? It didn’t bother me too much until he pointed it out though…


  2. This is a really good point, but oddly it didn’t strike me as we went round the exhibition yesterday (perhaps because I have very low expectations of the BM’s explanatory information anyway). I loved the exhibition, and thought they were good on the relationship between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Classical’ art/workmanship. They didn’t have the courage of their convictions though – having spent the first couple of rooms going on at length how there were no Celts, they proceeded to refer to ‘Celtic art’ etc. throughout.

    What I was bothered about was the stupid ‘atmospheric’ music and lighting. I don’t understand why the BM’s last few exhibitions have all been in a sort of stygian darkness. When you’re often trying to look up close at small details in glass cases, it’s not helpful at all. And at one point I couldn’t even read the information. Pompeii, by comparison, was very well lit.

    I thought exactly the same thing about the warrior stele. Really striking similarity (shame they didn’t flag it up). Isn’t the Gundestrup cauldron great? Second time I’ve seen it, and definitely worth seeing again.

    Liked by 1 person

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